A team of lawyers find themselves stranded high in the Himalayas. They face fatigue, dehydration and maybe even an avalanche. Their only hope is to work together and get down to safety in order to stay alive.
Only this isn’t any normal mountaineering expedition. This is actually a legal panel review process conducted by a U.K. company in late 2020. The teams have been ‘virtually’ flown to the mountains with no warning and in-house professionals are watching every move on the video call to see how well the team works together.
It was run by FTSE 250 airline easyJet, which decided to review its roster of advisers despite the pandemic lockdown stopping other companies, such as EDF and BP, from doing the same.
“It seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, to do something radical,” says easyJet’s head of legal operations Helen Lowe.
“The whole panel process is so pointless in many ways. You don’t get value out of a lot of the work that everyone puts in. You sort of unwillingly read the documents that lawyers spend hours preparing and the presentations can be a miserable way to spend time for everyone.”
Instead, this review featured little focus on fees and technical legal questions and no formal presentations were given.
The process also included an initial application written in “plain English” and voicemail challenges where lawyers had to provide quick and concise advice for a given scenario as if leaving a voicemail.
The pitch teams were given no warning they were about to enter a Himalayas simulation exercise. And as soon as they did their behaviour was closely observed.
General counsel Maaike de Bie, deputy general counsel Rebecca Mills and legal operations head Lowe monitored how the teams worked together when tasked with making it down the mountain.
“Do they have fun, do they enjoy working together? Is one partner dominating with their ideas and dismissing anybody else? Are the junior members speaking up and are their views valued?”, Lowe explains.
The easyJet trio were equally looking for what they describe as ‘O-Shaped lawyer’ attributes from pitching firms, which include being open-minded, original and being able to take ownership. These attributes “aligned perfectly with what we wanted to achieve”, Lowe says.
“It’s looking at the firms that understand who we are, who can give pragmatic advice and communicate commercially and effectively on business issues,” she explains, “as well as the ones who will challenge us to think a bit harder and join-the-dots to secure the best outcomes for us”.
The process, which completed last month, ended with only two firms from its previous roster reappointed. The panel was expanded from six to nine firms, including Clifford Chance, Herbert Smith Freehills and CMS. Other firms appointed were Norton Rose Fulbright, Pinsent Masons, DLA Piper, DAC Beachcroft, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner and Knights.
The panel will be in place for a minimum of three years, with the option to extend to five.
The whole panel process is so pointless in many ways. You don’t get value out of a lot of the work that everyone puts in.
“If you want law firms to change, we have to change how we do it. It’s us using our leverage as clients to say that this needs to be different,” says Lowe.
She adds that the refreshed process helped “pushed boundaries and give you a chance to find out who the lawyers really are”.
Should other legal teams consider a revamped panel review process? Lowe believes so, saying the vast majority of lawyers she spoke to enjoyed the different approach and that “firms comfortable enough to embrace it really shone during the review”.
“The [lawyers’] nerves surprised me – there was definitely trepidation there!”
And perhaps rightly so, as well as most of the existing advisers being kicked off the panel, only one firm made it down from the Himalayas to cross the finish line in one piece.